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Shifting Thinking: The Making of.. (Part 2)

March 19th, 2010

In my last blogposting I attempted to give a brief history of shiftingthinking, including some of the key ideas behind its inception, and various ideas/approaches that have changed over time as the project/site has developed. In the next few postings I’ll continue to draw on and share some of the conversations from our recent group interview with the people at NZCER who’ve contributed to the shaping of shiftingthinking. What follows is my analysis/interpretation of what emerged from the discussions, structured around some of the questions we used to guide the group interview. With permission, I’ve included quite a few direct quotes taken from the discussion. Where several quotes follow in direct sequence, they represent the actual sequence of discussion (although I have omitted a few comments or details from the transcript for brevity). As usual, I invite my colleagues and anyone else reading this posting, to offer comments which might correct, contradict, question, complement, or reframe what’s written here.

Q. Do you think Shifting Thinking has met (or begun to meet) any of its original intentions/purposes/ideas/goals?  (which ones “yes”, which ones “no”, which ones “maybe”?)

One theme that emerged from our discussions is that there were a few different (although overlapping) intentions/purposes/ideas/goals for this project/website, and therefore some debate about what kind of site to build, what to put on it, who to engage in the project, and so on.   

The phrase we had at the time [to describe] what this website was all about – and you can debate what each of these words means and what they mean when they are all put together – was: that [it] was going to “equip people (and I’d written next to that, “which people”?) to think critically about what the knowledge society and the 21st century is going to do about education” (team member/blogger)

In the early days there was considerable debate around what the deep goals were within this general description. For example, as mentioned in my previous blogposting, the original name for the project/website was “thinking things through (T3)” but the name was later changed to “shifting thinking”. This name change was a source of some debate – for example, did the name “shifting thinking” imply that we were trying to shift people’s thinking in a particular direction? If so, in what direction, and guided by what theoretical perspective(s)? If not, what was the key purpose for engaging others in collaborative knowledge-building/critical thinking about the knowledge society and 21st century education? Several of the original team suggested “ontological differences” and differences of opinion lingered around some of these questions in the early days.

But out of these interesting human interactions come great things….some of these situations put you in positions where you have to rethink who you are, what you’re for, what you’re doing, why does it matter, and who cares? (team member/blogger)

Some of the ontological differences seem to have eased when the site started to take its current direction in late 2008. (Though we could legitimately argue that these are still valuable questions to ask about the site today).

If we take some of the statements from NZCER’s 2008 proposal and associated meeting notes from those times, does the team think any of the original goals have been achieved?

Here are some perspectives from the team:

I definitely think “promoting dialogue”, I think that still is a main thing that shifting thinking is trying to do. And “connecting thinking”, “generate new knowledge”, I think it’s trying to do all of these things still. “Build partnerships” and “develop strategies”. I think it is still trying to do all of those things, and in fact, it’s become more fluid. (team member/blogger)

So what’s been lost, well… the partnership thing has changed…. The thing of the project (originally) being a partnership with another organisation ….(team member/blogger)

I think the new site is much more in partnership with the community, than the site we were originally envisaging which was sort of [going to be] academics talking to each other. [Whereas] now, there’s this whole set of people who talk, so it’s a different kind of partnership (team member/blogger)

The excerpted comments above were nested within a wider discussion that included reflections about a) who was (or wasn’t) originally envisaged as having something of value to contribute to the kind of knowledge-building or theory-building that the site could (potentially) support, b) how the project (and site) would be structured in order to bring those people into the knowledge-building/theory development process, c) what that process might look like, and d) who ought to be in control of such a process (or to put it another way, what systems for “quality control” would be used). Overall it seemed to us that we’d moved from a more “high control” approach (where there was a desire to have fairly structured, moderated, and quality-controlled processes for shaping and filtering what happened in, on, and through the site, particularly in relation to the idea of knowledge/theory-building), to a more fluid, open, less tightly-controlled approach.

I’ve got one of the early brainstorm pictures of what we thought it would look like, how the bits would all fit together, and it was more segmented out, that theoretical bit (team member/blogger)

That’s what I remember, a lot of discussion about [the project as a way to] generate new theory … and that was part of the “controls” [aspects of the project] that have disappeared…. I don’t know if [that idea] has been lost or if it has just changed, but it was certainly quite a strong focus of original idea [for the project] whereas now it feels more like sharing of ideas, than generating new theories? (team member)

I think that was one of ideas we talked about [at the beginning] but looking back now, I don’t think a website is the most appropriate place to do that anyway. But if I had any motivation [to be part of this project] at that point, that’s what it was [a platform to build new knowledge/theory]. (team member/blogger)

But that’s where I think some of the “control” idea was, with somebody taking what other people were saying [on the website] and then doing something with it to come up with a new theory, or extend theory, or whatever. (team member/blogger)

So we got to about that point, and then we went around in circles for a while, and people kept asking what are we here for, what is the purpose, who is the audience…. Then….the idea of blogs came up. That was a major turning point I think and made it seem doable, it was something we can focus on and do. Then I don’t remember how but it got merged with Shifting Thinking conference, because those two things originally weren’t anything to do with each other. (team member/blogger)

Our conversation then turned towards the point at which we decided to change the direction of shiftingthinking, (as discussed in my previous blogposting). I proposed a list of things which I think have been consistent about the project from the beginning until today, plus a list of things I think have changed over time. My list was as follows.

Things that have been consistent from the beginning Things that changed over time
  • It is exploratory
  • It is linked with NZCER but also a different kind of space from the normal NZCER website.
  •  It’s about creating dialogue/conversation in the “spaces between” people and ideas
  • It’s about taking a “21st century thinking” approach to the way we think about moving peoples’ thinking and practice forward in/about education.
  • We need to be self-conscious and aware about what theories of change underpin this project (i.e. what kinds of change, who is changing, and how do we think they change?)
  • The site should have “things” to “think with” (thinking objects) as well as opportunities to delve into theoretical/conceptual backgrounds/context for these.
  • Developing this site/project requires us to draw on a range of expertises
  • It has potential to expand our international (and national) networks – even if we don’t know precisely who we might end up networking with as a result.
  • To be sustainable in the long term, we need a mechanism that  self-funding or brings in revenue that extends/continues the work)
From a division of labour between conceptual and technical development, to a more fluid interaction between technical and conceptual. Early in the project there was “conceptual” team and a “technical” team (with a few members who were in both teams). The conceptual team’s main role was to come up with the ideas/purpose, framing and the content. The technical team was responsible for figuring out how to design around/for this content and build a site that would achieve what it was supposed to achieve.  From the point at which we shifted to the foregrounding the blogging/narrative approach the conceptual/technical teams dissipated and dissolved into one another, and the development of shiftingthinking began to be more influenced by social media systems/practices/culture/trends. We continuously tinkered with the site, trying new ideas and features to see how the community would respond.From “filter then publish” to “publish then filter” In the book Here comes everybody (2008) Clay Shirky talks about a paradigm shift from “filter then publish” to “publish then filter” that has occurred through the emergence of online social media. While the ability to publish was once a costly and limited resource,  the low cost of self-publishing on the internet enables anyone to create and publish content which can be accessed by anyone in the world. In the old paradigm, there were many quality control filters in place prior to publication, controlled by knowledgeable experts, to ensure that content which was published was actually worth publishing. In the new paradigm, there is less pre-filtering of content. Anything, of any quality or value, can be published online, and so the “filtering” process tends to occur after, and is often determined by the response/reaction of a wide collection of readers/audiences/critics rather than a predetermined group of experts.   In the early days of shiftingthinking, we were more concerned with how to filter/channel the quality of content before it was put on the site. Our later approach was somewhat less pre-filtered. Quality still matters, but the quality or depth of various ideas/content can continue to be discussed/debated on the site, through extended comments and discussions between us and our readers. We operate on a high-trust basis, believing that our colleagues will think carefully about what they write on the site, and using each other as sounding boards for advice/feedback when we need it, but without requiring that someone checks each posting before it is published.

From structuring by “ideas” to structuring by narratives (bedded within ideas)The first version of ST was structured around a set of conceptual “entry points” (which led into theory, blogs, thinking objects, etc). The current version is structured more around the blogpostings and the narratives within them, and the larger narratives that link between them/through the postings over time. These thread and loop back to the theory ideas, but people do not have to enter the site through a “theory first” route

From “make sure the ideas don’t contradict each other” to an “ecology of ideas” Meeting notes from August 2008 discuss issues of “quality control”, and the need to check that ideas “don’t theoretically conflict”. In our AERA paper proposal, we talk about shiftingthinking as a “web-based ecology”, and consider it as a space where different ideas – sometimes contradictory ideas – can bump up against each other. 

So does the discussion above take us any closer to answering the question at the top of this posting?  Bottom line, how do we think we measure up on meeting our original intentions?

Well when you go back to all those things like dissemination, connecting thinking, building knowledge, we’re still trying to do all these things but objectively speaking, if you wanted to measure, how would you measure the extent to which thinking has been connected,  the extent to which we’ve built new knowledge, the extent to which we’ve built new partnerships, etc? (team member/blogger)

That’s a good question. We certainly talked through these ideas to a greater extent than I can convey in this blogposting, but now I’m interested in hearing what you think….

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Shifting Thinking: The Making of.. (Part 1)

March 15th, 2010

As part of our process for writing our forthcoming AERA paper, we recently convened a group interview with some of our colleagues to talk about the backstory of this site (shiftingthinking.org). (I’ve also read some of the old meeting notes going back the last couple of years). It’s interesting to see how the idea, goals, and hopes that got the process rolling might have changed, evolved, or developed over time, and which key moments and turning points have contributed to shiftingthinking.org’s present incarnation.

Shiftingthinking is one of the most complex and open-ended projects we’ve done at NZCER, and it’s very hard (well, probably impossible) to represent the complete backstory, but I will attempt to give a partial account, and invite others who’ve been part of this journey to correct or contradict it as they see fit.

Very briefly, the idea(s) that led to shiftingthinking was/were born as a collaborative project between NZCER and another organisation (“other horizons”) in approximately 2007-2008. At that time the project had different working name (“Thinking Things Through” or T3), and was:

designed to connect thinking, generate knowledge, build new partnerships, and develop innovations related to the question: ‘how can educators conditioned by 20th century thinking and structures understand and meet the needs of learners in the 21st century?

There were lots of discussions and working documents written by the group of people who were shaping T3, as they thought deeply about what their goals were, whether they all shared and understood the same set of goals, and how to build a website that would support these goals. By June 2008, NZCER had written a proposal that outlined the essence of the project. As an organisation, we were excited by the potential for this project to:

  • consolidate and integrate some of our recent work streams;
  • explore/develop a more “21st century” approach to engaging people to take their thinking and practice forward in education (i.e. moving away from “telling” people how to think in 21st century ways, to modelling 21st century thinking with educators and possibly all kind of other people)
  • explore what it actually looks like/what happens when you (try to) build something to enable “dialogue” and “conversation” and  thinking  “in the spaces between” people and ideas
  • broaden our networks and take these conversations international – “We want to explore new forums for debate, dissemination, dialogue and feedback between the researcher, practitioner and professional development communities, in New Zealand and in the international context”

There were a variety of other ideas and questions in this mix, for example, about the nature of change we want or expect to happen, the role of theory, and the kind of theory that ought to structure or shape the site, who the audience(s) might be, and how they might be engaged into this project with us, and what kind of relationships/partnerships we might want to created in and through the project’s development.  These are, in fact, the “hard” questions which I think we have grappled with throughout this project’s history. We definitely have some very strong ideas (individually and collectively), but I’m not sure we yet have definitive answers. I’ll dodge the bullet and set those questions/issues aside for now, and perhaps try to delve into these (or invite one or more of my colleagues to do so?) in a later posting.

By late 2008 we’d built the first version of the site (which by then had the new name of “shiftingthinking”), using a content management system called Silverstripe, and NZCER was carrying the project forward on its own. A great deal of time was spent thinking about how to structure the site, what content would be on the site, what people could do on the site, etc. We expected that people should be able to navigate through the site in different ways, but we had been developing a structure based around a series of themes or “entry points” into the big ideas, such as: “Change and growth”, “Postmodernism”, “Critical literacy”, and “Systems thinking”. The idea was that these themes or entry points would provide a link between theory pages, “thinking objects”, blogs or forums, etc. But we were having some difficulties making the whole site tie together, and we had nowhere near the amount of content we thought we needed to make the site interesting enough for people to want to visit – and keep visiting.   We were also divided over questions about how and when our imagined “audience” should be able to add content to the site (e.g. through comments, or on discussion forums), and we were debating questions related to the “quality control” processes we might implement, both for the content we created, and for any content co-created by others who might visit/interact with the site.

It was sometime late in 2008 that we arrived at the idea of moving shiftingthinking to a completely different platform – WordPress – and bring the blogs much more into the “foreground”. I had some quite strong views on this – I felt we needed to structure the site in a more of a narrative style, in other words, to start building “our story” of Shifting Thinking (and see if we could hook people into this emerging story) through blogs, which would also draw people into the big ideas/theories/thinking objects that we wanted to connect them with. I also thought we should open up all or most parts of the site to public comments and decide later if we needed to bring in more stringent levels of moderation. I’m not sure that the whole team believed that this was the way to go, but apparently I was convincing enough to persuade them we should give it a try. From that point forward, we started to build the shiftingthinking site in the structure as you see it today (although it has changed and grown and evolved a lot). Many of the current features of the site have been added on in an experimental fashion, as we either have ideas of what we would like to have on the site, or we discover some new technical possibility that we could use in the site. We have ideas, we try them out, see if they work, ask for feedback, tinker with them if we get some feedback, and then wait until we have another (good) idea.  Personally, I think this approach has taken us somewhere, or at least, it allowed this site to get some traction, build a small community, and gave a whole new dimension to the completely unexpected and emergent shiftingthinking conference in November 2009 – (a whole complex story of its own).

So now here we are, in 2010, taking some time out to think about what we’ve achieved, whether we’ve gotten any closer to our original hopes/dreams/goals for this project/website, what we’ve learned, and where we might go next. We’ve developed something, but is it what we thought we wanted to develop at the beginning? Is it something important, useful, or good?  The above is just a skeletal/fragmentary account of shiftingthinking’s backstory, but I hope it’s given you some sense that ideas, people, and process have interacted in a complex way to generate the site you’re seeing today.

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